Monday, January 01, 2007

The Apathetists

So, what can we do this year to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been?

Do we even have reason to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been?

Well, clearly, I hold that the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. The only reasons for action that exist are desires, and we all have desires. We all have reasons to promote in others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Then, when those desires drive those people to act, they will have even more reason to promote desires that fulfill the desires of others.

Yet, we live in a world where a great many desires are thwarted. More importantly, they are thwarted by other human beings – human beings who could, themselves, whose desires to fulfill the desires of others could be strengthened, and whose desires that tend to thwart the desires of others can be more adequately weakened.

We have reason to do so, and we have the tools. If we do not act, then one can wonder where we can find the high ground for saying that others are both irrational and harmful.

I have been carefully going over Sam Harris’ argument in “The End of Faith”, seeing if I can pull out a coherent set of premises and conclusions that make sense of his many claims. So far, it has proved difficult. I can find multiple interpretations to many of the things he writes.

Which itself creates a problem for Harris, who seems (from time to time) to argue that we should reject any work that it is possible to misinterpret in ways that would appear to justify atrocities. Given the possibility of even willful misinterpretation by those who want to make some atrocious ends of theirs seem justified, I doubt that any document could avoid condemnation on these grounds. The Declaration of Independence (…whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…) served to justify Southern secession.

Harris also appears to equate ‘moderatism’ (if I may coin a word) with ‘abject tolerance’ (or ‘a prohibition on criticism’). There is nothing in the concept of ‘moderate’ that insists on a toleration for fundamentalism. Indeed, it is quite consistent with ‘moderatism’ to view extremism as a vile and vicious practice. They are, in many instances, the first to condemn and criticize those who are not moderate, just as some of those who are tolerant are the first to condemn and criticize those who do practice tolerance.

However, there are, indeed, moderates who object to any criticism of another’s views, even those of people who are, themselves, highly critical of others. This is an entirely incoherent position that would, for example, condemn the abolitionist (who is critical of slave culture), but praise those who are critical of abolitionist culture. It is a form of moderation that is as incoherent and twisted as any religion.

If it is a fault of ‘moderatism’ that it gives a free ride to extremism, this raises a question.

Would this also be a fault of ‘apathetism’ – the attitude of, “I do not want to get involved?”

Here, I am merely expressing the attitude inherent in the cliché, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Does this not make, “Good people doing nothing,” as guilty of aiding and abetting fundamentalism as the ‘moderates’ in Harris’ sense? Is there a moral difference between the moderate who does not stand up against extremism out of principle, and the ‘apathetist’ who refuses to do so out of lack of interest?

It is widely noted that there are substantially more atheists in America (and the world) than there are Jews. Yet, the atheists are far less visible, and cannot even hold public office in the United States. We can blame theists for their bigotry in this regard, but we cannot also deny that another proximate cause is lack of effort in opposing these doctrines.

Well, New Year’s Day is a good day to cast aside bad habits and try, at least for a little while, to replace them with good habits. It is a good day to ask, “What am I going to do this year that is better than what I did last year?

In 2006, the atheists received a lot of press. This will invite a question. Are you ready for the backlash? Think of a chess game. Last year, the atheists were able to perform Harris-Dawkins maneuver. It caused some significant damage to the (political) force of the theists. However, let us not be so naive to think that there are not theists today plotting their counter-attacks – and that they will not seek to put the anti-theists back on the defensive, even return them to silence.

What are we doing to prepare for that counter-maneuver? What form might it take? Will we be prepared for it?

One suggestion for the form that this counter-move may take employs the classic tradeoff between quality and quantity. The quality of the arguments may be on the side of Harris and Dawkins. The quantity of public expression clearly favors the theists. Expect Dawkins and Harris to become sources of fundraising for the theists, who will then use their money to purchase the microphone of public media, who will simply drown out their critics in the volume of their response.

History clearly shows that a well-marketed, well-funded lie; even a well-marketed and well-funded absurdity that no rational person could think true for an instant, can win the public hearts and minds. Back in the realm of incoherence and absurdity, there is the view that, in the end, the rational argument will always win against all attackers, being held by somebody who needs only to open his eyes to see the widespread acceptance of such falsehoods as define the beliefs common to most religions. The agent who thinks that he can stand back and do nothing and victory will go to the agents of reason by default simply has not opened a history book. Rational argument will not win unless it is vigorously defended.

In speaking about this defense, I must make some things clear lest I be accused of doing something that even I have condemned in the past. I have asserted the principle that the only legitimate response to words are counter-words, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign in a society with freedom of speech and free elections. There are limits to what is justified in the defense of an idea.

Which brings me to yet another problem with Harris’ book – and, indeed, many arguments against theism that I have encountered. The argument is that these fundamentalist Muslims and Christians are to be condemned because they hold that others (infidels, heretics, and the like) are in error and must be converted in order to find full acceptance. Yet, are we not saying that only those who convert can find full acceptance?

I’ve posted an article stating that those who hold that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old are not fit for public office. What is the moral difference between this and the claim that those who deny that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old are not fit to hold public office?

This, indeed, is where I suspect the counter-attack against Dawkins, Harris, and the ‘New’ atheists will come from – from the idea that the ‘new’ atheists are just as intolerant – just as demanding of conversion – just as willing to view ‘moderates’ as the enemy and argue for their elimination, either by conversion or by coercion, as those that the “new atheists” condemn.

So, what is the defense?

We could say that it is permissible to exclude them because they are fundamentally wrong about certain facts and, because of their error, cannot be trusted to make wise decisions. They would, no doubt, say the same thing about us. We could say that they really are wrong, and they would answer that it is we who really are wrong.

Does a person have a right to hold public office regardless of what he believes, or can beliefs be held against a person who believes the wrong things?

Clearly, beliefs are relevant. The idea that we may not consider a person’s beliefs when deciding if he is qualified to hold public office is absurd. When it comes to keeping atheists out of office because their beliefs, the fact is that it is not wrong because we should not consider beliefs in judging candidates. It is wrong because those who judge the beliefs of atheists as disqualifying them for public office are making a mistake.

In fact, depending on their moral views, atheists are particularly well qualified to hold public office because they are particularly well qualified to judge the real-world effect of real-world laws. Whereas the reliance on myth and superstition means that others are prone to adopt laws that only have good effect in their imaginary worlds. The difference, instead, rests in whether the agent accepts the limitation that the proper response to words must be limited to words – and violence not be used to enforce beliefs; and that political campaigns (in a free and open society) only be countered by political campaigns regardless of the degree of certainty one has that the ‘victors’ have the wrong beliefs.

Whether the upcoming counter-attack against atheists comes here or elsewhere, there is no doubt that its perpetrators will be putting its full financial resources into the campaign, and it is indeed quite possible for the most mistaken and irrational views to become dominant even in modern times with the right backing. The question is whether atheists and rationalists will resolve to hold back this counter-attack with the forceful voice that the situation will likely require.


Anonymous said...

This comment does not fit with the post; I hope that this is forgivable. I'd like to argue for common moral subjectivism. I'm reading your article, Objectivity & Subjectivity in Ethics, and I find some important arguments unconvincing.

There is nothing incorrect about the idea that we can invent ethics to suit ourselves, so long as we truly believe them and our ethics are logically sound. For example, I might believe that it is ok to murder a human. You might ask me if it is ok for someone to murder me. If I respond "no", then you need only show that any distinction between me and another human is rationally unsound; my argument falls apart, and it turns out that I did not truly believe. But if I respond "yes, it's ok for another to murder me", then I can't imagine how you would show me "wrong".

You present two propositions:
1. There is absolutely no objective reason for selecting A over not-A (where A is a moral claim). The views of those who accept A are just as well founded as the views of those who accept not-A.
2. I accept A, which implies that I am perfectly justified in punishing any person who accepts not-A.
You call these mutually incompatible, and state: It appears to me that if (1) is true, the only intellectually responsible position to take with regard to (A) is, "I neither accept nor reject A or not-A; precisely because there is no objective way to defend accepting either claim."

I disagree. First, it's important to note that the views are not founded in anything. They are taken as axiomatic, just as you take "I should believe rationally sound arguments" as axiomatic. It is true that, by your standard, you are perfectly justified in punishing those who accept not-A. "Justified" is just as subjective. To assume that it isn't is to beg the question. You also assume that the acceptance of moral statements needs to be intellectually responsible. Intellectually responsible in what sense? There's no room for it. On what rational grounds is your belief in your moral system based? "Should" is a subjective relationship, it involves a certain standard. "Alice, by Alice's standard, should not murder" and "Joan, by Jack's standard, should not have an abortion" are perfectly sensible and can be true or false, but "Tim should not kill" is utter nonsense if we ignore that there is a certain standard being invoked.

It means that, the next time you hear of a person pouring gasoline on live kittens and setting them on fire, all of those who say, "That’s wrong!" are mistaken. The sadist is only morally prohibited from doing that which the sadist himself does not like to do. And the next time you go to somebody who borrowed money from you and say, "You still owe me that money," if he has no interest in paying you, your statement that he owes you the money is simply mistaken. He only owes you what he wants to pay.

If this is what it means for morality to be subjective, then it is a nonsense claim that should be rejected.

This is an appeal to emotion. You might as well say "Joe claims that we no longer exist when we die, and that the human race may perish and [insert other scary or hated ideas] ...if this is what he thinks the universe has in store for us, then it is a nonsense claim that should be rejected." This isn't an argument, it's a challenge to disagree with you in a way that marks me as a kitten-killer sympathizer. To clear up another important point, those who say "that's wrong by my standard" are not mistaken. But those who say "that's wrong by this sadist's standard" are mistaken. Those who say "that's wrong" and assume no standard exists are confused.

I'm not finished reading, but I'd like to know your responses to these points.

Anonymous said...

The url:

If desires are objective, then whether anything in the world will fulfill or thwart those desires is also objective. This objective fact of the matter (whether a state will fulfill or thwart certain desires) is something that we can study, make theories about, and be wrong about. It is the type of claim that we can sensibly debate, bringing forth evidence to support our position in the same way that we debate and bring evidence to support any claim in the field of any science.
I agree. We can measure what thwarts desires and what does not, and to what extent.

This is the sense in which I believe that morality is objective.
You missed some important steps. How is it that moral statements are derived from analysis of what does or does not thwart desires?

If better cannot be objective, then no defense of any theory in any field of science can be objective.
Better is subjective. Theories themselves are objective, and true or false. Scientific theories are better than others under a standard of science. This is the standard of explaining how the world works in a rational way and predicting how things will behave. That many people accept this standard as the correct one to use does not make it objective. "Creationism is better than evolution, by Bob's standard" is perfectly acceptable. Bob may choose a standard that has little to do with rationality, and a lot to do with intuition of some sort.

If I [defending subjectivism] say that capital punishment is wrong, I have to be saying that I do not like capital punishment. All my moral claims are about me, and about nothing other than me.
If you say capital punishment is wrong, then context implies that it is wrong by your standard. You can make moral clams about other people too. 'Capital punishment is right, by the standard of Alice' is sensible, and might be true or false. All moral claims do not have to be about you, but all moral claims - "should" claims - must have a standard. The standard might be implicit, and it usually is.

Some utterances, such as "Close the door," or "Do you know the way to San Jose?" have no truth value.
I don't know to what extent this is accepted, but I believe that they do. They translate to "I am imploring you to close the door" > "I would like that door to be closed" and "I am asking you the way to San Jose" > "I would like to be told the way to San Jose by you". People employ a variety of conventions for getting underlying relationships (statements) across to other people - body language, a sarcastic tone, innuendo, and as you point out, emotives.

They claim that moral statements are simply utterances of personal preference, and yet they also infer obligations and duties from these utterances. To do this, they need to explain, what seems to me to be inconceivable, how a you can derive an obligation from a personal preference.
"A person should not murder, by the standard that I accept. People obliged to not murder, by this moral standard." Obligation and duty are subjective. X is obliged to Y by moral standard Z. It's sensless to say "Alice is obliged to not murder" without there being a standard Z. It's valid to say "Alice is obliged to not murder [by the moral standard of desire utilitarianism]". A statment like this might be true or false. This statement is true.

Middle objectivism; middle subjectivism [...] If I were to say, "I like chocolate ice cream," then that would be subjective on this account. I am reporting on my own psychological states. However, if you were to say "Alonzo likes chocolate ice cream," that statement would be classified as objective
Both statements are absolutely synonymous. Differentiating them based on who says them or if the subject is the speaker has nothing to do with subjectivity. This isn't a real category, as far as subjectivity is concerned.

However, narrow objectivism would also exclude statements like "Three people were injured today in an accident on I-70,"
That statment is only subjective if there is an implicit "injured by the standard of X". If we define injury in an objective manner, say, damage to the body (assume that damage too is objectively defined), then it's not subjective. With this in mind, I don't see any distinction between 'narrow objectivism/broad subjectivism' and 'broad objectivism/narrow subjectivism'.

The desires and values of one individual do not translate into moral statements that can be applied to others. If it is true that by Alice's standard humans should not murder, then it is true that Alice, by Alice's standard, should not murder, and that Bill, by Alice's standard should not murder, but it is not necessarily true that Bill, by Joan's standard, should not murder. Which standard should Bill choose? Alice's, or Joan's? There's no objective way to determine this.

"If I want you to do X, then you have an obligation to do X" -- such as, "If I want you to shine my shoes, then you have an obligation to shine my shoes." There is no way that a personal preference that a person do or refrain from doing something can generate an obligation that the other person do or refrain from that action. Yet, this absurd implication rests at the core of the subjectivism.
That's not what rests at the core of subjectivism. "I want you to shine my shoes. People are obliged, by my standard, to do what other people want. You are obliged, by my standard, to shine my shoes." is what rests at the core. It doesn't mean that the other person will accept the standard, as you suggest. Only that to say that one moral standard is "better" than any other (without acknowledging that a certain standard of 'better' is being invoked) is incoherent.

The subjectivist offers no alternative to how duties and obligations can come about.
Obligations and duties are not universal. A duty exists based on some moral standard. It is true that murder is wrong by the standard of the ten commandments. Switch the standard, and the statement might become false.

Or, if the speaker’s preferences can only generate obligations and prohibitions for the speaker alone, we end up with a pointless and impotent morality that says merely "You are obligated to do only that which you feel like doing, and prohibited from doing only that which do not want to do."
Yes, that's what we end up with. Calling it impotent, pointless, and mere doesn't change its reality.